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Meet IU Northwest’s Axel Schulze-Halberg, the man behind the formulas

Mathematician views his discoveries as a hobby while others use them to make intellectual breakthroughs


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Emily Banas
Office of Marketing and Communications

Erika Rose
Office of Marketing and Communications

This mathematical expression, called a differential operator, is used to calculate position and energy of a particle trapped inside a sphere.

Who on Earth comes up with this stuff?

Mathematicians like Axel Schulze-Halberg, Ph.D, do. The Indiana University Northwest assistant professor has published more than 70 research papers dealing with mathematical physics and dynamical systems in some of the highest ranking journals in the world.

IU Northwest Professor of Mathematics and Department ChairIztok Hozo, Ph.D. noted that IU Northwest is privileged to have a faculty member who is exceptionally accomplished in both research and teaching.

"The missions of our department, college and university all stress the importance of both teaching and research and talk about how the balance between the two is what makes an ideal faculty," Hozo said. "From nowon, we could just put Axel's picture on our mission statement to illustrate an ideal faculty member – one who is respected and loved by colleagues and by thestudents."

It has been said that Schulze-Halberg is perhaps "the most prolific researcher on campus."  In 2011,he received the IU Northwest Dean's Award for Distinction in Research and Creativity. This is given to a researcher in the College of Arts and Sciences for a recent contribution with the most impact in his or her field. But that's not all. His colleagues also bestowed upon him the Trustee Teaching Award, an honor to recognize the best teachers on campus.

"Students love him and flock to his classes," Hozo said.

Schulze-Halberg studied physics in his native Germany and then earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He taught in Zurich as well as the University of Colima and National Polytechnical Institute, both in Mexico, before joining the IU Northwest faculty in 2009.

Though he may be fluent in three languages (four if you consider math a foreign language, as many do), Schulze-Halberg doesn't flaunt his global sophistication. In fact, he'd rather not appear foreign to others and works hard at eliminating any trace of accent from his speech. He admits to feeling foolish whenever he doesn't understand someone.

Funny, that's just how the non-math minded might feel talking with him about Quantum Theory.

In much the same way, Schulze-Halberg is quick to downplay any recognition of his intellectual talents.

"It's not a question of being very smart," he explained."It's a question of getting used to things. . . A lot of it is about getting used to the abstract language. Once you get used to it then you just accept it. That's just the way it is and it's not so bad anymore."

Kind of like cockroaches. Wait, cockroaches?

That's right, for all of you math-phobes out there, math is merely something foreign that takes some getting used to, like, well, cockroaches. When Schulze-Halberg lived in Mexico, he was at first repulsed by the vile creatures but after living around them for awhile, he eventually became unfazed by them. Math is the same way, he said.

"If you are afraid of something, you just face it," he said."That is the best solution."

Speaking of solutions, the problems Schulze-Halberg works with often have no solutions or even any practical applications at all. It's the nature of research in mathematical physics.

With research in other fields, he explained, the expectation is that there is always some real world application that somebody can understand. That's not typically the case in math, he said.

So what good is math, you ask? In many ways, Schulze-Halbergsaid, math is a creative activity, akin to art or music.

"(Mathematicians) see themselves as artists. And that is the justification," he explained. "So, what does it help? The first argument is,well, there might be a potential application that nobody is imagining righ tnow. This has happened a few times. There was a mathematical context lying around somewhere and suddenly somebody found a technical application for that. That happens sometimes, but you can't count on that."

For him, it's really more of a hobby -- a hobby that cranks out six or seven research papers a year, that is.

Teaching is just as much a passion for Schulze-Halberg as tinkering with numbers, and he has a particular fondness for the varied needs of IU Northwest's student body.

When looking for a job near The University of Chicago, where his wife decided to study after the family's stint in Mexico, he says he chose IU Northwest because of its diversity and friendliness.

Grasping for English words to explain what he means,Schulze-Halberg finally says that unlike other schools, IU Northwest is notlike "big machinery" – like a factory cranking out intellectuals.

"If I just have a couple of learning machines, I find that not so interesting," he said.

Schulze-Halberg also leads IU Northwest's Dual CreditProgram in Physics with Crown Point High School.

Additional Article Photos

IU Northwest file photo
Assistant Professor Axel Schulze-Halberg, Ph.D.